Sunday, November 21, 2010

Assumptions About Top Graduates and Education

The Washington Post editorializes that, as "Teacher quality is the single most important in-school determinant of student achievement", "this country... has to figure out how to attract its most accomplished graduates to teaching." Sorry, if by "most accomplished graduates" the Post means students who excel in fields outside of teaching, or the graduates of top colleges, it's not going to happen. With all due respect for "Teach for America", that organization focuses on shifting its corps members out of the classroom and into administration and policy jobs because, at least in my opinion, it recognizes that few are going to want to remain in classroom positions. Why? Because even among those who find that they want to pursue a career in education, those who are from top universities with six figures in student loan debt want to make more money than teachers are paid - they would have a great deal of difficulty servicing their debt on a standard teacher salary. And guess what? Our nation is not willing to pay teachers more money - in fact, the emphasis is on "taking away" - how can we "take away" their generous health benefits, retirement benefits, tenure, etc.

Further, I've been taught at the college level by some professors, grad students, and recent "brilliant" graduates who wheedled adjunct positions, and... brilliant as many of these people are, teaching is not something that comes naturally to all of them. Or most of them. And of those who like to teach, you often hear grousing about how college students aren't sufficiently interested in learning, aren't prepared, aren't motivated, don't contribute enough in class... These aren't people who are going to have fun teaching K-12, nor are K-12 students likely to find it at all fun to be in their classes. Teaching involves a lot more than a brilliant mind and mastery of subject matter.

Further, is it always sensible to get true subject matter experts to teach K-12 subjects? Let's be honest for a moment. You don't need a Ph.D. or even a masters degree to have ample subject matter knowledge to teach middle school math or English. It's not necessary to overstate the academic credentials required of teachers, nor is it necessary to suggest that the bulk of the nation's teachers aren't qualified to teach their subjects.

The Post sugests,
As the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. reported this fall, fewer than one in four of U.S. teachers are coming from the top one-third of college graduates, while the world's top performing systems recruit 100 percent of their teacher corps from the top third.
Sure, part of that may be attributable to those other nations being willing to treat teachers better and accord them better pay and more respect. But I suspect if you look at both the quality of their colleges versus the quality of U.S. colleges, or the range of opportunities available to college graduates who want to stay in the nation, you'll find additional reasons why a significant subset of their top graduates go into teaching. Also, the nations referenced in the article to which the Post links are "Singapore, Finland, and South Korea" - relatively culturally homogeneous nations with positive cultural attitudes toward education. As that article notes, there's reason to doubt the measures applied to determine if, in fact, the claim is true.

There's nothing wrong with wanting top performing college students to become K-12 teachers. Perhaps improved compensation would improve recruiting numbers among those who have desire to teach - I don't think we're going to get teacher salaries up to the level that we truly lure top graduates away from the professional fields. But I think it's a mistake to assume that achievement in college translates into teaching aptitude, or that merely because the top third of graduates tend to focus on other avocations there aren't large numbers of qualified, competent, capable teachers emerging from our nation's colleges.


  1. One of the things that needs to be emphasized is the quality of life/lifestyle for teachers. Let's just be honest--10 weeks off in the summer, time off at Xmas, spring break, winter break, generous time off packages if you are in a union (and that I am partaking of this week!) ends up being a great lifestyle. I know it's sacrosanct to not be a gunner in this world, but I'm not and I love the lifestyle I'm afforded. Would I like to make more money? As the old Sally Struthers Save the Children commercial said--of course, we all would. But I also like my free time.

    I'm really tired of hearing the "more money to lure the best talent" argument because I think that quality of life should have something to do with it. (And also, I only really hear the more money to lure the best talent argument when it comes to recruiting for traditionally male occupations, but that is merely anecdotal so I will not belabor the point).

    I do agree with you that just knowing the subject matter isn't enough. You have to have some sort of charisma, a lot of patience, organization and be very flexible. I accompany my special needs students to a math class taught by someone who obviously knows her math but is very confrontational, impatient (by her own and often admission) and teaches one way and that's it. I end up teaching 1/2 the class who can't understand it "her" way. (Btw, I can't really comprehend someone who is admittedly impatient going into teaching....)

  2. A couple more notes on Finland:

    "Finland and Denmark (according to studies from UNICEF in 2005 and 2007) have childhood poverty rates of 2.8% and 2.4% respectively, while the U.S. childhood poverty rate is 21.9%.

    Further, Finland's entire population is only 5 million people, while the U.S. school system educates 50 million children with 3.2 million teachers. In short, as with Mississippi and SC, the full picture about populations reveals a "few data points" as being more about misleading than illuminating.


    "[T]he Finns put an 'intensive investment in teacher education--all teachers receive 2 to 3 years of high-quality graduate-level preparation completely at state expense--plus a major overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system designed to ensure access to a 'thinking curriculum' for all students'

    * * *

    In Finland, the country that ranked first in the world in math, reading and science on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams, and which Guggenheim holds up as a model for a successful education system, teacher training programs recruit from the top 10 percent of high school graduates each year. Moreover, places for new teaching trainees are strictly limited by the government to match school demand, making competition for seats fierce.

    In short, if you are a top high school graduate in Finland, want the state to pay for your masters-level education, want to graduate to a near certainty of having a job, and want a career with decent pay and benefits, a lot more vacation time than most other fields, union protections, and no NCLB-style testing regimen, Finland may be the place for you.

  3. Hmmm, so on some level what we've learned is that places that value education have good educational systems? : )

    Does anyone really believe that if we picked-up the best .5% of the graduates of the nations twenty top ten universitites and dropped them into the Detroit and DC public schools systems things would get "good"? "average"? Not be an embarassment to the nation? (No offense to TP who seems to be the exception that proves the rule, but "wow" is any news out of the DPS ever anything but depressing?)

    I don't know how you accomplish it, but I don't see much "school reform" that works until you can change the enviornment around the schools. (i.e. make people value education)